False alarms: a real problem

June 07, 1994

Crime may not pay, but the fear of it certainly does. That's true at least for the booming security alarm business, which has grown into a national industry earning about $20 billion a year. In 1992, 8 percent of U.S. homes were equipped with burglar alarms, but as the fear of crime increases and home systems become more affordable, that figure is expected to approach 20 percent by the year 2000.

An unhappy consequence of this boom is a steep rise in the number of false alarms that strain the dwindling resources of local police departments. In Baltimore County, the police responded to 62,663 false calls last year, up from 49,112 in 1990. The number is projected to top 115,000 in 2003.

According to county police, a staggering 98 percent of the burglar alarm calls to which county officers respond are false. Besides diverting police from real crimes, these pointless calls tend to make officers apathetic. What if a police unit were to take its time responding to another likely false alarm, only to arrive late for one of the rare occasions when a crime really occurred?

A Maryland law allows local jurisdictions to fine home and business owners whose burglar alarms often ring falsely. Yet a lack of staff stops Baltimore County police from bothering to track and enforce these offenses. The department therefore has drafted legislation to establish an electronic phone service that would automatically fine alarm companies responsible for false calls.

The proposal would require that alarm professionals be licensed and held to tougher standards. The bill's main element, however, is the creation of a 900 telephone number that alarm company monitors would have to dial whenever they call the police. (Under the current arrangement, when an alarm is set off by equipment failure, user error or an actual break-in, the alarm monitor phones police headquarters. A police unit is then sent to the site of the alarm.)

Each 900 call would cost about $20 to the companies, with most of the fee going to the police. Police officials hope these charges will make the alarm companies fine-tune their systems to avoid being billed for false calls.

This legislation has its flaws, including the chance that the fees will be passed on to alarm customers. Still, the alarm companies must upgrade the construction and installation of their systems as well as the education of their clients. If the companies won't take these steps on their own, maybe they need to be prodded by a proposal such as this one from the Baltimore County police.

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